The effects of COVID-19 are having a significant impact on every sector and the ensuing lockdown situation is leading to a “long-term adjustment” by organisations with extensive digitisation being one of the key enablers of such change. Nevertheless, as Harvard Business Review (HBR) puts it, digital transformation is not about technology only. Whilst digital technologies provide endless possibilities, there is also the need for change in current practices and most importantly, for people to develop the skills, knowledge, tools and techniques required for digital transformation. The impact of the crisis on our lives for example, resulted already to adapting our mindsets, behaviour and use of technology such as virtual meeting and teleconferencing platforms and apps, to survive the curtailment of freedoms imposed on us.
The Meteoric Rise of Virtual Conferencing
Whilst we were all accustomed with, and relied on virtual meetings with the likes of Skype and other platforms for both personal and business use, according to BBC, Zoom sees sales boom amid pandemic. The use of the Zoom platform jumped 30-fold in April, as the coronavirus pandemic forced millions to work, learn and socialise remotely, with more than 300 million daily participants in virtual meetings globally, despite security concerns and its recent announcement that end-to-end encryption would be for paid users only. Other virtual meeting software such as Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Meet to mention a few, have also seen a similar growth and jumped in the rankings. Likewise, people had also felt a greater need for the use of online government services around the globe during the times we live.
Digitisation: what about Governments?
In the field of utilising web technologies, there is no Chinese wall between the private and public sectors preventing stakeholders’ expectations in one from informing their attitudes and behaviour in another. Hence, governments have followed suit on what the private sector was doing, in the name of efficiency and effectiveness – the most perceptible and intangible benefits – along with the aim of cost cutting, realising the potential of going online. It has been a long while since then and today, government modernisation is a synonym with what was called e-Government (Electronic Government), now known widely as Digital Government. However, digital transformation of public services takes time reaching different levels of maturity around the world. Citizens nowadays demand not just e-service or an online submission form, but a proactive digital governmental service.
Moreover, in the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent near global lockdown, the urgent need for governments to provide hundreds of necessary services remotely, is making it almost impossible to conduct an extensive digital transformation process. A review of the national portals of the 193 United Nations Member States showed that by the end of March 2020, 110 countries (57%) have put in place some kind of information on COVID-19. A further analysis showed that by 8 April 2020, around 167 countries (86%) have included information and guidance about COVID-19 in their portals. Nevertheless, this state of affairs refers back to the first levels of maturity of digital government, such as the ‘cataloguing’ stage. In such times, there is a requirement for innovative solutions and how to harness technology to serve new needs for digital government services and more demand on existing services.
Embracing digital government during the pandemic: examples of good practice
Estonia, one of the pioneers in e-Government services, has been converting public services into flexible e-solutions for its citizens and e-residents since the mid-90s. Today, is probably the only country in the world where 99% of the public services are available online 24/7. One can use virtually every government service online, except perhaps for getting married, getting divorced and doing a transfer of property. The extensive data sharing culture in government and the policy of citizens entering information online ‘once only’, beat back the coronavirus pandemic, enabling life in the country to continue, largely uninterrupted.
The United Kingdom government has also had a long presence online since the mid-90s with open.gov.uk, which was merely an online directory, and UK Online, launched in 2000. UK Online was the first citizen portal to group information into life events, something that was retained with Directgov, the 3rd generation portal that was launched in 2004. Although in that time, Directgov was deemed to be successful, it attracted criticism with regard to citizen engagement, input and participation and, following a strategic review and citizens’ online consultation, a Web 2.0 generation portal was developed. The successful development and introduction of the GOV.UK portal in United Kingdom in 2012, has seen a consolidation of nearly all of government services online, albeit gradually. The Government Digital Service team behind it, designed, built, and shipped the coronavirus response page in under 5 days. Helping people to navigate and quickly find the coronavirus content relevant to them, they split information into clear categories like health and wellbeing, or housing and accommodation and more recently travel, like entering the UK. Meanwhile, the UK government funded and tested digital innovations to support vulnerable people during COVID-19 outbreak. At local government level, the UK government made funding available for data and digital projects to help local authorities in England with their COVID-19 recovery and renewal efforts.
In other countries such as Greece, there have been monumental efforts and various initiatives since 2000, to establish a well-defined national framework for the development of digital government services at both central and local government. It was only this year, that the new GOV.GR government portal went live online, developed to the GOV.UK’s design standards, consolidating similarly most of government services online. This project, which led by the Ministry of Digital Governance in Greece, was accelerated partially by the coronavirus crisis, providing more than 500 services online with some specific to COVID-19. In addition, during lockdown, the Greek Government set up an SMS system for citizens to request permission when leaving their homes, whether say for shopping or personal exercise.
There are many countries to mention here, but it is clear that governments that have been consistently developing and improving digital services are responding to the COVID-19 emergency better and are more resilient.
Our thanks to Dr Panos Hahamis for authoring and contributing this fascinating piece. Panos is a Senior Lecturer within Westminster Business School whose research interests include Digital Government, Digital Business and Digital Marketing. He holds a Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA) from Henley Business School and has had a distinguished career in the Greek Military and Diplomatic Service.
Read on for past articles featured in our Academic Minds column.
Edited and published by Joseph Coote-Cowling.